Tzav & Jeremiah: Smoke vs. Altruism

(Last week’s Torah portion was actually Vayikra, the first portion in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra. This week I am back on sync with the calendar of Torah readings.)

What gives God pleasure?

This week’s Torah portion, Tzav (Leviticus 6:1-8:36) and its haftarah, the accompanying reading from the Prophets (Jeremiah 7:21-8:3 and 9:22-23) give two different answers. In Leviticus, God is infuriated when any Israelites violates one of God’s many rules, even inadvertently; but smoke from a burning sacrifice improves God’s mood. In Jeremiah, God is bitter and destructive because the Israelites abandoned God and worshipped other gods; and smoke does nothing to improve God’s mood. 

Pleasure in smoke

The first five books of the bible are full of people making animal sacrifices to God. The first humans in the Torah to worship God with burned offerings are Cain and Abel.1 Noah loads some extra animals on the ark, and when he burns them after the flood has receded, God’s attitude toward humankind improves.2

Noah’s Sacrifice, by James Tissot, circa 1900

Throughout Genesis and Exodus, individual men continue to thank and worship God by building altars and burning animals. The first two portions in the book of Leviticus, Vayikra and Tzav, give God’s instructions for making animal and grain offerings as part of the new cult that relies on priests.

For any type of offering, Leviticus explains, the donor who brings the animal to the altar leans a hand on its head before slaughtering it,3 thus identifying the animal as his gift to God and making sure God gives him the credit. For example, in the Torah portion Tzav, a ram is burned during the ceremony in which Moses consecrates the first priests, Aaron and his four sons.

Then [Moses] brought close the ram of the olah, and Aaron and his sons leaned their hands on the head of the ram. And he slaughtered it, and Moses sprinkled the blood on the altar all around. (Leviticus 8:18-19)

olah (עֺלָה) = offering in which the animal is completely burned. (From the root verb alah, עָלָה = rise up.)

After the altar is splashed with blood, Moses butchers the animal, and all the pieces are roasted on the fire of the altar.

When an offering is made to atone for transgressing one of God’s laws, even unintentionally, a priest removes all the fatty parts of the animal and burns them up into smoke; then he and other male priests may eat the remaining meat. The smell of the smoke soothes God’s temper and inclines God toward forgiveness. (See my post Pinchas: Aromatherapy.) When an offering is made to thank God for well-being, the donor and his guests also get to eat some of the meat, but the fatty parts are still reserved to be burned up into smoke for God.

Humans get two benefits from an offering that is not an olah: they eat high-protein food, and God is pleased or appeased. But other offerings require that the entire animal is burned up into smoke for God. During the consecration of priests in Tzav,

… Moses turned the whole ram into smoke at the altar; it was an olah, for a soothing scent; it was a fire-offering for God, as God had commanded Moses. (Leviticus 8:21)

An olah must be offered not only on special occasions such as a consecration or a holiday, but also every day, so there is always something smoldering on the altar.

The smoke from the burning animal rises up to the sky, where God normally lives. (Hebrew uses the same word, shamayim, שָׁמַיִם, for both “sky” and “heavens”.) Then God enjoys the “soothing scent” of the smoke, and relaxes. The God-character in the Torah is hot-tempered, and needs a lot of soothing. Even part of the daily grain-offering is mixed with oil and frankincense and burned, so that its smoke will please God.4

Against burning animals

Yet the haftarah reading from the book of Jeremiah declares that the directions for animal offerings are useless.

Thus said God of Armies, God of Israel: “Add your olot onto your slaughter-sacrifice and eat the meat! Because I did not speak with your forefathers, nor command them at the time I brought them out of the land of Egypt concerning matters of olah and slaughter. Rather, with this word if commanded them, saying: Heed my voice, and I will be your god, and you—you will be my people. And you must walk the entire path that I command you, so that it will be good for you.” (Jeremiah 7:21-23)

olot (עֺלוֹת) = plural of olah; offerings in which the animal is completely burned up into smoke.

Some commentators have explained Jeremiah’s outburst as sarcasm. Others have written that Jeremiah meant the wicked were assuming they could get away with their transgressions by making the appropriate guilt-offerings.5

I think Jeremiah is challenging the whole idea that the way to keep God happy is to keep making sacrifices and providing smoke for God to smell. In the chapter before this week’s haftarah, Jeremiah quotes God as saying:

“Your olot are not acceptable, and your slaughter-sacrifices do not please me.” (Jeremiah 6:20)

Pleasure in altruism

Then what does give God pleasure in the book of Jeremiah?

Shortly before this week’s haftarah begins, God says:

“For if you really make your way and your acts good; if you really do justice between a man and his fellow, if you do not oppress an immigrant, orphan, or widow, and you do not shed the blood of the innocent in this place, and you do not go after other gods—to your own harm; then I will let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave to your forefathers forever until forever.” (Jeremiah 7:5-7)

In other words, the only way to please God is to be fair, to help the needy, and to avoid other gods.

The end of this week’s haftarah is the following poem:

Thus said God:

            “May the wise not boast of their wisdom,

            And may the powerful not boast of their power.

            May the wealthy not boast of their wealth.

            Rather, in this may the boasting boast:

            Understanding and knowing me.

            Because I, God, do kindness,

            Justice, and altruism in the land.

            Because in these I take pleasure,”

Declared God. (Jeremiah 9:22)

Every year I approach the portions Vayikra and Tzav with dread; they are particularly unpleasant reading for someone like me who does not eat mammals and does not want to see or imagine their cut-up corpses. Nor do I like the idea of a God who normally has a hair-trigger temper, but calms right down under the influence of smoke from sacrifices.

As I write this I am sipping a cup of cocoa, because the taste of chocolate calms me down. But I disdain a concept of God that assigns the deity that much human frailty.

The God in Jeremiah is not as temperamental as the one in Leviticus. Yet this God is fixated on destroying Judah and Jerusalem in order to punish the Israelites for both serving other gods, and persisting in doing evil to other human beings. Only a thorough change in the people’s behavior will satisfy God. Only then will God let them return in peace to their ancestral land.

What would it take to please God—or to occupy our world in peace—today?

  1. Genesis 4:3-4.
  2. Genesis 8:20-21.
  3. The Hebrew in Vayikra and Tzav is veshachat (וְשָׁחַט) = and he will slaughter, with “he” referring to the one who leans a hand on the animal’s head.
  4. Leviticus 6:8.
  5. For example, Rabbi Bachya ben Asher wrote circa 1300 C.E.: “When the prophet spoke about G’d not commanding us to bring animal sacrifices he meant that the animal sacrifices were not meant to be in lieu of penitence and proper conduct on our part. This is what Samuel had already said many hundreds of years previously to King Saul (Samuel I 15,22) “heeding My commands is much preferable than to offer Me good meat-offerings.” (Translation of Rabbeinu Bachya on Leviticus 7:38 by

Pekudei & 1 Kings: Is the Ark an Idol?

The ark and the curtain in front of it are the last two things Moses puts into the new Tent of Meeting in this week’s Torah portion, Pekudei (Exodus 38:21-40:38). Then the portable sanctuary that will be God’s new dwelling place is complete.

Then Moses finished the work. And the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the kavod of God filled the Dwelling Place. And Moses was not able to enter the Tent of Meeting, because the cloud rested on it and the kavod of God filled the Dwelling Place.  (Exodus/Shemot 40:33-35)

kavod (כָּבוֹד) = weight, magnificence, honor, glory.

Thus all the Israelites who made things for the portable sanctuary, from the golden ark to the woven walls, did it right. God approved, and manifested inside.

The last thing King Solomon puts into the new permanent temple for God in this week’s haftarah (the reading from the Prophets that accompanies the Torah portion) is the ark. Then the first permanent temple for God in Jerusalem is complete.

Glory fills Solomon’s
temple, artist unknown

And it was when the priests went out of the holy place, and the cloud filled the house of God. And the priests were not able to stand and serve in the presence of the cloud, because the kavod of God filled the house of God. (1 Kings 8:10-11)

Thus all the people who built and furnished the temple for King Solomonalso did it right; God approved, and manifested inside.

In both the tent and the temple, the ark is brought into the Holy of Holies, the innermost chamber in back. In both Exodus and 1 Kings, the ark is a box or chest with a lid and four feet. In both stories, it is carried by means of two poles that run through the rings attached to its feet. And in both stories, the ark contains the two stone tablets Moses brought down from his second forty-day stint on Mount Sinai.

Yet the two stories do not seem to be talking about the same ark.

The ark in Exodus

The master artist Betzaleil makes the lid of the ark in last week’s Torah portion in the book of Exodus, Vayakheil:

Then he made a kaporet of pure gold, two and a half cubits long and a cubit and a half wide. And he made two keruvim of gold; he made them hammered out from the two ends of the kaporet. One keruv out of this end and one keruv out of that end; from the kaporet he made the keruvim, from its two ends. And the keruvim were spreading wings above, screening off [the area] over the kaporet with their wings. And they faced each other, and the faces of the keruvim were toward the kaporet.(Exodus 37:6-9)

kaporet (כַּפֺּרֶת) = the lid of the ark in Exodus and Numbers; the lid of the ark as the seat of reconciliation or atonement with God in Leviticus. (From the root verb kafar, כָּפַר = covered; atoned, made amends.)1

keruvim (כְּרוּבִים) = plural of  kervuv (כְּרוּב) = “cherub” in English; a hybrid supernatural creature with wings and a human face. (Elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, keruvim are guardians, steeds, or part of God’s heavenly entourage.)2

Moses and Aaron Bowing Before
the Ark, by James Tissot, ca. 1900

The bodies of the gold keruvim in Exodus are never described. Since each keruv sculpture has only one face, which gazes at the lid of the ark, it represents a different sort of hybrid creature from those in Ezekiel’s visions. The book of Ezekiel describes a keruv as having four faces, four wings with human hands under them, a single leg like a calf’s hoof, and eyes covering its whole body.3

The two gold keruvim on the ark in Exodus face one another, but they are looking down at the center of the lid. They might be guarding the stone tablets inside, or they might be guarding the empty space above the lid and below their wings. Earlier in the book of Exodus, God tells Moses:

And I will meet with you there and I will speak with you from above the lid, from between the two  keruvim (Exodus 25:22)

That means the gold keruvim in Exodus are not idols. In the Ancient Near East, an idol was a sculpture of a god that the god sometimes entered and inhabited. At those times, worshiping the idol was the same as worshiping the god.

But Exodus is careful to explain that God will not enter the ark or the keruvim sculptures on top of it; God will only manifest in the empty space between kaporet and the wings of the keruvim.

The ark and its lid are only two and a half cubits long—just under four feet (just over a meter)—so the empty space for God is not large. According to Exodus, God manifests there as a voice, but according to Leviticus 16:2, God appears there as a cloud.

The two small keruvim that Betzaleil hammers out of the extra gold on the ends of the lid of the ark are not mentioned again anywhere in the Hebrew Bible except once in the book of Numbers:

And when Moses came to the Tent of Meeting to speak with [God], then he heard the voice speaking to him from above the kaporet that was on the Ark of the Testimony, from between the two keruvim; thus [God] spoke to him. (Numbers/Bemidbar 7:89)

Here, too, the Torah clarifies that neither the keruvim nor the kaporet nor the ark are idols.

The ark in 1 Kings

Many generations pass before David creates the first kingdom of Israel, and his son Solomon builds the first permanent temple for God.  By the time King Solomon brings the ark into his new temple, there do not appear to be any keruvim on its lid. The first book of Kings reports the two large statues of keruvim in the Holy of Holies, and small keruvim decorations carved into the walls of the rest of the temple, but no keruvim on the ark.

Solomon has two colossal wood statues of keruvim brought into the Holy of Holies before the ark is carried in. Each keruv is ten cubits, about 15 feet (four and a half meters) tall, with a ten-cubit span from wingtip to wingtip.4

Then he placed the keruvim inside the House, in the innermost [chamber]. And the wings of the keruvim spread out so the wing of one keruv touched the wall, and the wing of the second keruv was touching the second wall, and in the middle of the chamber their wings touched. And he overlaid the keruvim with gold. (1 Kings 6:27-28)

Meanwhile the ark remains in King David’s tent of meeting, in another part of town, until the rest of the temple and its furnishings are completed.

That was when Solomon assembled the elders of Israel—all the heads of the tribes, chiefs of the fathers of the Children of Israel—before King Solomon in Jerusalem, to bring up the Ark of the Covenant from the City of David … And all the elders of Israel came, and the priests lifted the ark. (1 Kings 5:1-3)

Solomon Dedicates the Temple,
by James Tissot, 1902

King Solomon leads the sacrifice of livestock on the altar outside the new temple.

Then the priests brought the Ark of the Covenant of God into its place, into the back chamber of the house, to the Holy of Holies, to underneath the wings of the keruvim. For [each of] the keruvim was spreading a pair of wings toward the place of the ark, so the keruvim screened off the ark and its poles from above. (1 Kings 8:6-7)

Here the empty space reserved for God is larger than in Exodus, since the gap between the lid of the ark and the wings of the colossal statues of keruvim is about 11 feet (three and a half meters). Yet the Hebrew Bible does not mention God speaking from this space. Nor does a cloud appear there after God’s inaugural cloud of kavod has faded.

The contents of the Holy of Holies in Solomon’s temple seem to be merely symbolic. There is no mention of God manifesting in the empty space between the wings of the keruvim and the ark. Neither a statue nor the ark becomes an idol that God inhabits. According to one Talmudic source, ordinary Israelites can see the ark and the keruvim without any harmful consequences.5

Perhaps 1 Kings emphasizes that God does not inhabit the ark inside the new temple when it says:There was nothing in the ark but the two stone tablets that Moses set down there at Chorev [a.k.a. Sinai] which God cut … (1 Kings 8:9)

The ark as an idol

Exodus and 1 Kings reflect two different traditions about the relationship of the ark to its guardian keruvim. Current scholarship suggests both books were written in the 6th century B.C.E., and the descriptions of the Tent of Meeting in Exodus were modeled on the descriptions of Solomon’s temple, with adjustments to make the tent-sanctuary smaller and more portable. The descriptions of the ark in Exodus through Numbers are also more awe-inspiring than the bare mention of the ark in 1 Kings.

Both descriptions of the ark and the pair of keruvim make it clear that these furnishings are not idols. Yet other stories in the Hebrew Bible do treat the ark like an idol inhabited by God.

In the book of Joshua the priests carry the ark across the Jordan River, as the Levites had carried the ark (always covered from view by three layers of fabric)6 from Mount Sinai to the eastern bank of the Jordan. But then the priests carry it in a military parade around the walls of Jericho until God destroys the city.7

After the Israelites are unexpectedly defeated in a battle later in the book of Joshua, the ark apparently sits on the ground out in the open, rather than inside the tent-sanctuary:

And he fell on his face on the ground in front of the ark of God until evening, he and the elders of Israel, and they put dust on their heads. (Joshua 7:6)

In the first book of Samuel the ark is inside a sanctuary again: the temple at Shiloh, which has solid walls and doors, but a tent roof. However, the sons of the priest Eli take the ark out of the temple and onto the battlefield, where it is captured by the Philistines. In Philistine territory, the ark initiates two plagues and smashes an idol of the Philistine god Dagon.8  The God of Israel is working magic through the ark, which functions as an idol.

Ark Sent Away by the Philistines,
by James Tissot, 1902

The Philistines send the ark back into Israelite territory, where its magic power kills at least 70 Israelite men who look inside. The ark is removed to a private house where the owner’s son is consecrated as a priest to guard it.9

This version of the ark can be safely seen from outside, but must not be opened—or touched, except by its attached carrying poles. When King David sets out to retrieve the ark and transport it to Jerusalem, its two current priests load it on a cart. Partway to Jerusalem the oxen pulling it stumble, and the priest who touches the ark to steady it dies instantly.

And David was afraid of God that day, and he said: “How could I bring the ark of God to myself!” (2 Samuel 6:9)

Although it is possible to interpret this verse as indicating David’s fear of a remote God who chooses to kill anyone who touches the ark, it makes more sense if David conflates God and the ark, treating the ark as an idol God is inhabiting. Fear of God and fear of the ark are the same thing.

Three months later King David succeeds in bringing the ark the rest of the way to Jerusalem, and installs it in the new tent-sanctuary he has set up there for God.10 This is the ark that King Solomon brings into the Holy of Holies in his new temple, and positions under the wings of two new statues of keruvim. At that point the ark is no longer an idol, but merely a sacred object, the most sacred object in the temple.

Which version of the ark appeals to you the most:

The holy work of art in Exodus and Numbers, which only a priest is allowed to see?

The idol that travels around naked in Joshua and the two books of Samuel, zapping people right and left?

Or the piece of furniture in 1 Kings, which must be treated as sacred because it contains the two stone tablets, the way an ark in a synagogue today is treated with respect because it contains the Torah scroll?

  1. The only occurrence of the term kaporet  in the bible outside Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers is when 1 Chronicles, written about 200 years later, says King David gave his son Solomon plans for the temple including “the shrine of the kaporet” (1 Chronicles 28:11). This is not a locution used in Exodus through Numbers.
  2. Keruvim are definitely guardians in Genesis 3:24 and Ezekiel 28:14-16. A keruv is a steed for God in 2 Samuel 22:11, Ezekiel 9:3, Psalm 18:11, and 1 Chron. 28:18. Keruvim are part of God’s large supernatural entourage in Ezekiel 1:5-14, 10:1-20, and 11:22.
  3. Ezekiel 10:1-20 and 1:5-14.
  4. 1 Kings 6:23-26.
  5. Talmud Bavli, Yoma 54a.
  6. See my post: Bemidbar: Don’t Look!
  7. Joshua 3:3-4:18, 6:4-13.
  8. 1 Samuel 4:3-6:12.
  9. 1 Samuel 6:19-7:1.
  10. 2 Samuel 6:13-17.

Judges, Jeremiah, and 1 Samuel: More Dancing

Warli painting of a chain dance, India

Dances called mecholot (מְחֺלוֹת) seem like an innocent way to celebrate. In this type of dancing, people form a line behind a leader, with each dancer using one hand to touch the next. The line moves in a circle, a spiral, or some other curving pattern as the dancers copy the steps of the leader. In the Hebrew Bible, the dancers chant and shake tambourines as they dance.

Song of Songs 7:1 celebrates a dancer’s beauty in a double row of mecholot. Chain dancing is cited as the opposite of mourning in Psalms 30:12, 149:3, and 150:4, and in Lamentations 5:15. And when Miriam leads the Israelite women in mecholot on the shore of the Reed Sea in Exodus 15:20-21, they are relieved and grateful to God for saving their lives.

But elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, mecholot are not as innocent as they appear.

In last week’s post, Beshalach & Ki Tisa: Dancing, we saw that when the Israelites start dancing mecholot in front of the golden calf at Mount Sinai, they think they are celebrating the return of God, but they are actually worshiping an idol.

Thanking God for the grape harvest and celebrating the return of victorious generals by dancing mecholot also turn out to be dubious activities.

Thanking God for grapes in Judges

The Dead Concubine at Giveah

A traveling Levite and his concubine spend the night in the Benjaminite town of Giveah. The men of the town rape and murder the concubine, and the Levite rallies men from all the other tribes to destroy Giveah. These men assemble at a watchtower in Benjaminite territory, and besides planning the battle, they vow in the name of God that none of them will marry their daughters to a Benjaminite. 

The war escalates. Men from throughout the territory of Benjamin join the war on Giveah’s side, but the other tribes defeat them so thoroughly that the only Benjaminite survivors are 600 men who escaped into the wilderness. All the women and children die when the attackers burned down their towns.

Then the victors regret their vow, since it means that one of the twelve tribes of Israel will die out. How can they give the 600 men of Benjamin wives, so they can rebuild their tribe?

The elders point out that it is time for the annual festival in Shiloh in which adolescent girls perform dances to thank God for the grape harvest.

And they directed the Benjaminites, saying: “Go and lie in wait in the vineyards. And you will see them, and hey!—if the daughters of Shiloh go out lachul in the mecholot, then you go out from the vineyards and seize them, each man his wife from the daughters of Shiloh, and go back to the land of Benjamin.” (Judges 21:20-21)

lachul (לָחוּל) = to go around in succession; to dance in a circle. (A form of the verb chal, the root of mecholot.)

And the Benjaminites did so, and they made wives for their number from the dancers who they took away by force… (Judges 21:23)

Who knew that chain dancing could be so dangerous for women?

The book of Judges does not say whether the girls were warned ahead of time about what was going to happen to them. But even if they were told, they had little recourse; the male head of household arranged the marriages of all the females under his control.1

Thanking God for grapes in Jeremiah

Much later in the history of the Israelites, Jeremiah delivers a divine prophecy that someday God will bring the defeated and exiled people of Israel and Judah back to their lands, and Israelite women will once again dance in the vineyards.

“I will definitely build you up again, maidens of Israel! Your tambourines will be in your hands again, and you will go out in a mechol, playing. Again you will plant vineyards on the hills of Samaria … (Jeremiah 31:4-5)

Jeremiah expands the good news to include men in the dancing.

That is when the maidens will rejoice in a mechol, and young men and old ones together as one. (Jeremiah 31:13)

We do not know whether he means that men will dance with women, or that women will form their own chains, and young and old men will join together in other chains. Either way, everyone will get to dance. And the dancing God promises in the future definitely celebrates a harvest from God, not rape.

Celebrating victory in Judges

A story in the book of Judges about General Yiftach (Jepthah in English translations) shows him swearing a vow to God before he crosses the border to attack the Ammonites:

“If you definitively give the Ammonites into my hand, then whatever happens to go out from the door of my house to meet me upon my safe return from the Ammonites will become God’s, and will be offered up as a burnt offering.” (Judges 11:30-31)

by James J.J. Tissot, ca. 1900

The Torah warns against making rash vows.2 But starting with Jacob after his ladder dream3 and continuing to the present day, believers in an anthropomorphic God often try to bargain with their deity, promising to do what they think God wants if God gives them what they want.

When Yiftach makes his rash vow, he forgets that women customarily celebrate the return of victorious soldiers with drumming, singing, and mecholot. He returns home victorious.

And hey! His daughter went out to meet him, with tambourines and with mecholot! (Judges 11:34)

Yiftach’s daughter must be accompanied by some female friends, since the word for tambourine is in the plural. But as the general’s daughter, and his only child, she would lead the chain dance. That means she would come out the door of his house first.

Yiftach tears his clothes (an act of mourning), and tells her he cannot retract his vow.

Celebrating victory in 1 Samuel

In the first book of Samuel, the dancing women have the last word. When King Saul and his general, the future king David, return triumphant from a battle against the Philistines,

… the women went out from all the towns of Israel for song and mecholot, to greet King Saul with tambourines and rejoicing … and they chanted: “Saul struck down his thousands, and David his tens of thousands!” And made Saul very angry, and this matter was bad in his eyes. And he said: “To David they gave tens of thousands, and to me they gave thousands. The only thing he lacks is the kingship!”  (1 Samuel 18:6-8)

King Saul takes out his anger on David, not on the women. After Saul makes a number of attempts on his life, David flees into Philistine territory.

… and he came to Akhish, king of Gat. And the servants of Akhish said to him: “Isn’t this David, king of the land? Isn’t he the one they chanted about in the mecholot, saying: Saul struck down his thousands, and David his tens of thousands!” (1 Samuel 21:11-12)

David pretends to be insane, scratching on the door and drooling, so the King of Gat turns him away, and he escapes.

I bet the Israelite women who sang the chant while dancing mecholot gave it a catchy tune, so no one could forget it.

Why is chain dancing—the opposite of mourning—often associated with disaster in the bible?

From my own experience, I know that the form requires attentive cooperation; you have to concentrate to make sure you keep the right space between the dancer in front of you and the dancer behind you, and also do the steps in time to the music. Collaboration, physical energy, concentration, and singing all make the experience of dancing mecholot exhilarating.

Building a tragic tale around a well-known emotional high is good storytelling. And these stories caution us not to take anything for granted. Maybe the golden calf is not such a good idea. Maybe men and women are working at cross purposes; while women are dancing, men are making rash vows or getting jealous.

Today, when men are more thoughtful, we can safely enjoy a dance of celebration.

  1. One tradition based on the betrothal of Rebecca in Genesis 24:58 gives a girl veto power over a particular match, at least if the marriage means leaving her home town. But this tradition does not seem to be in play in the book of Judges.
  2. E.g. Deuteronomy 23:21-23, Proverbs 20:25.
  3. Genesis 28:20-22.

Beshalach & Ki Tisa: Dancing

How do you thank—or appease—the God of Israel? Burning offerings on an altar is the primary method in the Hebrew Bible. But for women, another way is to grab your tambourine and do a chain dance.

Celebrating the right way in Beshalach

As soon as the Israelites walk out of Egypt, Pharaoh pursues them with chariots in the Torah portion Beshalach (Exodus 13:17-17:16). Then a wind from God dries out a path across the Reed Sea. After the Israelites cross over, God makes the waters return and drown the Egyptian army.

Miriam, by Anselm Feuerbach, 1862

Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took the tambourine in her hand, and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with mecholot. And Miriam sang call-and-response to them: “Sing to Y-H-V-H, for [God] is definitely superior! Horse and its rider [God] threw into the sea!” (Exodus 15:20-21)

mecholot (מְחֺלוֹת) = plural of mecholah (מְחֺלָה) or mechol (מְחוֹל) = chain dance or circle dance. (From the root verb chol, חול = go around in succession; do a circle dance or chain dance.)

In a mecholah, dancers form a line behind a leader, with each dancer using one hand to touch the next. The line moves in a circle, a spiral, or some other curving pattern s the dancers copy the steps of the leader.

In this first example of mecholot in the Torah, each woman on the shore of the Reed Sea is carrying her tambourine, but her other hand is free to touch the shoulder of the woman in front of her. Percussion and singing are integral to the dancing.

This first chain dance is a heartfelt celebration of a divine miracle that saved the Israelites from being killed. Even the words the women sing are a tribute to God.

Celebrating the wrong way in Ki Tisa

The Israelites also think they are celebrating God’s presence with the second mecholot in the Torah,which occur in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tisa (Exodus 30:11-34:35). But they are deluding themselves.

A pillar of cloud and fire from God led the Israelites our of Egypt, across the Reed Sea, and all the way to Mount Sinai. But there the pillar disappeared, and God manifested as terrifying noises and volcanic fires. At least the people still had Moses as an intermediary—until after the revelation and covenants at Sinai, when Moses disappeared. From Moses’ point of view, God invited him into the cloud on top of the mountain for forty days and nights of divine instruction. But the Israelites below see only fire at the top of the mountain.2 When Moses has not returned after 40 days, they give up on ever seeing him again. How can they continue traveling to Canaan without either the pillar of cloud and fire or the prophet Moses to lead them?

And the people saw that Moses was shamefully late coming down from the mountain, and the people assembled against Aaron, and they said to him: “Get up! Make us a god that will go in front of us, since this man Moses who brought us up from the land of Egypt—we do not know what happened to him!” (Exodus 32:1)

What the Israelites are asking for is an idol: a statue that a god will magically inhabit. After all, other religions in the Ancient Near East depend on idols inhabited by gods to grant good fortune to their worshipers.

Worshipping the Golden Calf, Providence Lithograph Co. Bible card, 1901

Aaron melts down the gold earrings that the Israelites took from the Egyptians on their way out, and makes a golden calf.

… and they said: “This is your god, Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt!” And Aaron saw, and he built an altar in front of it, and he called out and said: “A festival for Y-H-V-H tomorrow!” And they rose early the next day, and they offered up burnt offerings and brought wholeness offerings. Then the people sat down to eat, and they drank, and they got up letzacheik. (Exodus 32:4-6)

letzacheik (לְצַחֵק) = to make merry, to have fun, to mock, to laugh, to play around.

Aaron should have known better. Yes, using the four-letter personal name of the God of Israel would at least remind the people which God brought them out of Egypt. And Aaron cannot be held accountable for knowing the second of the Ten Commandments, which forbids idols, since this list of commands is inserted into the Torah portion Yitro (Exodus 18:1-20:23) in the middle of the story of God’s frightening volcanic revelation.3

Nevertheless, right after the revelation God tells Moses:

“Thus you must say to the Israelites: You yourselves saw that I spoke to you from the heavens. With me, you must not make gods of silver or gods of gold …” (Exodus 20:19-20)

A long list of additional rules follows.

Then Moses came and reported to the people all the words of Y-H-V-H and all the laws. And all the people answered with one voice, and they said: “All the things that Y-H-V0H spoke we will do!” And Moses wrote down all the words of Y-H-V-H. (Exodus 24:3-4)

So by the time Moses disappears for forty days, everyone, including Aaron, knows that God absolutely rejects gold idols. And they make one anyway.

In this week’s Torah portion, when Moses finally hikes back down Mount Sinai carrying the two stone tablets, he hears raucous singing.4

And he came close to the camp, and he saw the calf and mecholot. And Moses’ anger burned, and he threw the tablets from his hands and shattered them at the bottom of the mountain. (Exodus 32:19)

Naturally Moses would be angry at the sight of the golden calf, which was exactly the kind of idol God prohibited. But why was he upset by the sight of chain dancing?

Rashi5 proposed that the Israelites were dancing lewdly. He cited the first description of the Israelites’ revelry in front of the golden calf, which says “they got up letzacheik (to play; see Exodus 32:6, above). The word letzachek, Rashi pointed out, has a sexual connotation in the book of Genesis, when Potifar’s wife accuses Joseph of attempted rape. She says: “… he came into our house letzachek with me!” (Genesis 39:17).

Yet the dances reported in this week’s Torah portion are mecholot, in which the only physical contact is between one person’s hand and the back of the next person’s shoulder. It is not even partner dancing. I think Moses is enraged to see the dancing simply because the people are celebrating the manufacture and worship of an idol, when they ought to feel ashamed of disobeying God.

Thousands of the dancers die in Ki Tisa6 because they convince themselves that they are celebrating the return of their God with perfectly acceptable acts of worship: burnt offerings, feasting, drinking, and innocent mecholot. They cannot bring themselves to believe what Moses told them: that their God, the God who brought them out of Egypt, is not the normal kind of god that inhabits idols.

Denial—pretending that a reality does not exist—is human nature. We often long for something we cannot have, and postpone doing what we must to make the best of it. Sometimes we get away with it for a while, and when we feel stronger we grapple with our problem again.

But some forms of denial are too extreme to get away with, even in a world without a Moses or a God to inflict direct punishment. Today we may die if we neglect clear warnings about our health. Our hopes and plans may die if we fail to face reality in our relationships, our jobs, our finances, our habits.

Before we join a dance of celebration, may we consider whether we are celebrating something real.

Next week: more dancing

I hope my Jewish readers had a happy Purim!

  1. See my blog post: Bo & Beshalach: Winds.
  2. Exodus 24:16-17.
  3. From the viewpoint of source criticism, the Ten Commandments were clearly inserted by a later editor. But even if the biblical narrative were a continuous whole with one author, there is no indication that anyone except Moses heard the Ten Commandments at that time.
  4. Exodus 32:18.
  5. Rashi is the acronym for 11th-century rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki.
  6. Three thousand are slain by Levites in Exodus 32:26-29, and an additional number are killed by a plague from God in Exodus 32:35.

Tetzaveh: Clothed in Three Reminders and a Warning

High priest vestments

During Moses’ first forty days and nights on the top of Mount Sinai, God expands the Israelite religion by giving Moses the plans for a portable tent-sanctuary, and calling for hereditary priests.1 Moses’ brother Aaron will become the first high priest, and his four sons will serve as priests under him. Before saying anything about the ordination or the duties of the priests, God describes the vestments of the high priest in this week’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh (Exodus 27:20-30:10).

“And you shall make sacred clothing for Aaron, your brother, for magnificence and for beauty.” (Exodus/Shemot 28: 2)

The garments God plans for Aaron are as magnificent and beautiful as the robes of an emperor. But they also contain reminders that the high priest is a holy human being, completely dedicated to God—and a device that lets everyone hear where he is.

Reminder stones on the shoulders

The first reminders God describes in this week’s Torah portion are two dark blue stones attached to the shoulder straps of the tabard the high priest will wear over his robe. (This tabard, called an eifod (אֵפֺד), consists of two rectangular pieces of cloth made with gold, deep blue, red violet, and crimson yarns. One piece covers the chest and one piece covers the back. The pieces are connected with wide straps over the shoulders, and ties at the sides.)

“And you will take two lapis lazuli stones and you will engrave on them the names of the sons of Israel: six of their names on one stone, and the names of the remaining six on the second stone … you will make them encircled with gold settings. And you will put the two stones on the shoulder straps of the eifod as stones of remembrance for the sons of Israel. And Aaron will carry their names before God on his two shoulder straps for remembrance.” (Exodus 28:9-12)

The names of the twelve “sons of Israel” are the names of the twelve tribes of Israelites. These stones will remind Aaron that he must represent all the Israelites in his service to God. According to Rashi, the stones are also a reminder to God; their purpose is: “so that the Holy One, blessed be He, will see the names of the tribes written before Him and He will remember their righteousness.”2

Reminder stones on the pocket

The next reminder is on a large square pocket called a choshen (חֺשֶׁן), which will be attachedwith gold rings tothe front of the eifod.3 Twelve different precious stones will be set into the front panel of the choshen, one stone for each tribe.

“Aaron will carry the names of the sons of Israel on the choshen of judgment, over his heart, when he comes into the holy place, to remember them before God constantly.” (Exodus 28:29)

By keeping the twelve stones over his heart, Aaron will be symbolically keeping all twelve tribes in his thoughts and feelings. (The ancient Israelites  considered the heart the seat of the mind as well as the emotions.) According to 18th-century rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev. the twelve stones would also serve to remind all the Israelites that although God chose Aaron as the high priest, they were not rejected; God loves them, too.4

Reminder medallion on the forehead

The high priest will also wear a gold medallion on his forehead, in front of his turban.5

“You will make a flower of pure gold, and you will engrave on it [like] the engraving on a seal: Holy to God.” (Exodus 28:36)

This medallion will label the high priest as consecrated to God. The words on his forehead will also remind him of his role on behalf of the Israelites.

“And it will be on his forehead constantly, to win favor for them before God.” (Exodus 28:38)

One interpretation in the Talmud is that the words on the gold medallion propitiate God when the high priest accidentally makes an impure offering on the altar.6 It also reminds the high priest that everything he does must be dedicated to God. To make sure he remembers, he is supposed to touch the gold medallion on his forehead from time to time.7 Like the choshen, the high priest must wear the medallion “constantly”, i.e. whenever he is in the sanctuary. Without it, he cannot serve as a high priest.

Warning bells on the hem

Under his eifod and choshen, the high priest will wear a me-il (מְעִיל), a long sleeveless tunic that is reserved for priests and royalty in the Hebrew Bible.

“You will make a me-il of the eifod, entirely deep blue. …  And you will make on its hem pomegranates of deep blue and red-violet and crimson, all around its hem. And pa-amonim of gold among them, all around: a pa-amon and a pomegranate, a pa-amon and a pomegranate, all around the hem of the robe.” (Exodus 28:33-34)

pa-amon (פַּעֲמוֹן) = a small bell. (Plural: pa-amonim, פַּעֲמוֹנִים)

Gold pa-amon found in Roman sewer under Jerusalem’s old city

According to the Talmud, there were either 72 or 36 gold bells with clappers, and both these bells and the woolen pomegranates dangled down from the hem.8 Pomegranates were a common decorative motif; their many seeds made the fruits symbols of fertility. But what are the bells for?

“And Aaron will wear [the me-il] to wait on God, and its sound will be heard when he comes into to the holy place before God and when he goes out, so he will not die.” (Exodus 28: 35)

 The Torah does not specify whether the holy place is the whole sacred enclosure, or the tent-sanctuary inside it, or the Holy of Holies (the back room inside the tent). The Torah also does not specify who must hear the bells ringing.

Both Ramban (13th-century rabbi Moshe ben Nachman) and Rabbeinu Bachya (Rabbi Bachya ben Asher, 1255-1340) wrote that the sound of the bells must be heard by God and any ministering angels present inside the Holy of Holies. (After the death of Moses, only the high priest was allowed to come into the Holies of Holies, the locus of God’s presence on earth, and he would only enter once a year, on Yom Kippur. According to one Talmud tractate, the clappers were hung inside the bells only on that day.9)

The tinkling of the bells, these commentators explained, was a polite way both to ask God for entry, and to ask the angels to leave before the high priest came in. Without this courteous warning, he might be killed as an intruder by either an angel or the Torah’s anthropomorphic God.

On the other hand, Ramban and Rabbeinu Bachya noted, the high priest must wear only linen when he enters the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur, according to the Torah portion Acharei Mot in Leviticus.10 So the gold bells between the wool pomegranate bobbles must chime their warning while he is still in the front chamber of the Tent of Meeting—as if he were standing outside a door and ringing the bell. Then the high priest changes clothes before entering.

According to this scenario, God and the ministering angels in the Holy of Holies must need a lot of advance notice. In Leviticus, after the high priest changes into his pure white linen garments on Yom Kippur, he places lots on two goats, slaughters one of the goats and his own bull at the altar, collects the blood of each, scoops glowing coals into his fire-pan, and walks back into the tent, where he picks up two handfuls of incense before he steps behind the curtain.11

The tinkling of bells on the high priest’s hem might also serve as a warning to the other priests that their boss is approaching. Even on an ordinary day, he might want to be alone inside the tent-sanctuary.

In addition, whenever the Israelites standing in the courtyard outside the tent heard the bells, they would be reassured to know that their high priest was on the job, atoning for their misdeeds and keeping God happy.

But merely wearing a robe with bells sewn around the bottom is not enough, regardless of who is listening,. After all, the bells will chime only when the high priest is walking. If his is standing still, or tiptoeing carefully in and out of the sanctuary, the sound will be too faint to hear. He has to stride in and out.

Perhaps the instruction about the bells means that in order to do the highest service to God, one must not be timid. One must enter the sacred space of prayer, or any other spiritual practice, boldly and openly. Let the sound of your practice be heard. Other people will either join you gladly, or back away to avoid confrontation—which are both good outcomes.

Besides striding into your religious practice, it is also helpful to keep reminders of how you intend to use your religion for the good. It would be impractical to wear stones with the names of all the “tribes” in your world, but you might find another way to remind yourself that you intend to be their ally and emissary.

It would also be impractical to wear a gold plate engraved “Holy to God” on your forehead, but you might find another reminder that every action you take matters, and you can make your deeds worthy of a good God. Some Jews wear a kippah (also called a yarmulke) for this purpose. What would work for you?

  1. See last week’s post, Terumah: Insecurity.
  2. Inside the pocket the high priest keeps the urim and tumim, two objects used for determining God’s answers to simple questions. See my post Tetzaveh: Divining.
  3. 11th-century rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki, a.k.a. Rashi, on Exodus 28:12, translated by This interpretation is also implied in the earlier text of Shemot Rabbah and in 16th-century commentary by Ovadiah Sforno.
  4. Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, Kedushat Levi, on Exodus 28:29.
  5. See my post Tetzaveh: Flower on the Forehead.
  6. Talmud Bavli, Pesachim 77a-81b and Zevachim 22b-23b, 45b, and 82a.
  7. Rashi, based on Talmud Bavli, Yoma 7b.
  8. Talmud Bavli, Zevachim 88b.
  9. Talmud Bavli, Yoma 44b.
  10. Leviticus 6:2-4, 6:13-14.
  11. Leviticus 6:5-13.

Terumah: Insecurity

Moses relays a long list of rules to the Israelites and conducts two covenant ceremonies affirming the Israelites’ allegiance to God in last week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim (Exodus 21:1-24:18). The portion ends with Moses climbing farther up Mount Sinai, then waiting seven days until God summons him into the cloud on top.

Then Moses entered the midst of the cloud and went up the mountain. And Moses was on the mountain 40 days and 40 nights. (Exodus/Shemot 24:18)

During those forty days Moses listens to more instructions from God. But these instructions are not rules of conduct; they are plans for more religious ritual. This week’s Torah portion, Terumah (Exodus 25:1-27:19), begins:

And God spoke to Moses, saying: “Speak to the Israelites so they will bring me a terumah. From everyone whose heart prompts him, accept a terumah.” (Exodus 25:1)

terumah (תְּרוּמָה) = contribution; tribute (to God); something dedicated as holy by being elevated. (From the root verb ram, רום = be high, be exalted, be lifted up.)

The voluntary contributions that God calls for are gold, silver, copper, colorful yarns, fine linen, hides, acacia wood, oil, spices, and precious stones. After listing these materials, God says:

“And let them make me a sanctuary, and I will dwell among them. Like everything that I myself show you, the design of the dwelling-place and the design of all its implements, thus you shall make it.” (Exodus 25:8-9)

The rest of the Torah portion consists of God’s explicit instructions for the design of the portable tent-sanctuary and its ark, bread table, lampstand, and exterior altar.1 In next week’s portion, Tetzaveh (Exodus 27:20-30:9), God continues with instructions for the priests’ vestments, their ordination ritual, and the incense altar.

Why does God suddenly ask for all these appurtenances of a religion? Why is it no longer enough for the Israelites to follow God’s pillar of cloud and fire to Canaan, and act according to all the rules God commands through Moses?

A theory of jumbled time

One theory is that God’s instructions for a sanctuary are a response to the Golden Calf, the idol the Israelites make on Moses’ fortieth day in the cloud on Mount Sinai. The people crave a concrete object to represent God, preferably something that God will enter and be present in the way gods in other religions enter idols. So God provides a substitute for an idol: a beautiful building with precious ritual objects. And God promises to enter and inhabit this building, so God will be “dwelling among them”.

But why would God start giving Moses instructions for the sanctuary several weeks before the Israelites make the idol? Some commentators2 have responded with the declaration, “There is no before and after in the Torah”, a principle that the Talmud tractate uses to resolve discrepancies in dates within the Hebrew Bible.3 According to this Talmudic principle, the events in the book of Exodus were not written in chronological order anyway, so God actually did call for the sanctuary after the Golden Calf incident. The sanctuary was a concession to (and redirection of) the surviving Israelites after the most blatant Golden Calf worshipers were killed.

A theory of affection

A theory of affection

Other commentators have countered that the events in the book of Exodus are arranged in chronological order. That means God wanted the Israelites to build a sanctuary all along; the making of the Golden Calf merely interrupted the divine plan for a while.

A less time-insensitive Talmudic approach states:

… God’s original intention was to build a Temple for the Jewish people after they had entered the land of Israel. … it is written “And let them make Me a Sanctuary, that I may dwell among them”, i.e. even while they were still in the desert, which indicates that due to their closeness to God, they enjoyed greater affection and He therefore advanced what would originally have come later. (Talmud Bavli, Ketubot 62b)4

Ramban (a.k.a. 13th century rabbi Moses ben Nachman or Nachminides) promoted this theory in the 13th century. Contemporary commentator Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg explained:

“In Ramban’s reading, the Israelites have been transformed by their encounter ‘face-to-face’ with God; they have received the basic commandments and committed themselves to fulfilling them; to affirm this, they have entered into a Covenant with God.  … In Ramban’s reading, the idea of a sanctuary for god in their midst is a token of transformation: after the Revelation and the Covenant, they have become fit vessels for the Presence of God.”5

A theory of second thoughts

I think God calls for a sanctuary and priests because God suspects something like the Golden Calf will happen—unless the people’s anxiety about God’s invisibility is addressed some other way.

Moses and the Ten Commandments, by James Tissot, 1896

At first the God character believes in the Israelites’ enthusiastic allegiance to God immediately after the revelation.7 That is why God invites Moses to hike back up the mountain for a permanent copy of the rules, not for a sanctuary design.

And God said to Moses: “Come up to me on the mountain, and I will be there, and I will give you stone tablets with the teachings and the commands that I have inscribed to teach them.” (Exodus 24:12)

But then, perhaps during the seven days while Moses is waiting for God to invite him into the cloud on top of Mount Sinai top receive the stone tablets, God reconsiders.

After all, the anthropomorphic God character in the first five books of the bible is not omniscient, and does not know what human beings are going to do. This God character is also moody, and sometimes has second thoughts.8

What if the people all promised to obey everything God said simply out of fear? After all, they were terrified by feeling the earthquake, seeing the lightning and smoke and fire, and hearing the thunder and the blare of horns.9 They could not even distinguish between seeing and hearing,10 and they begged to be excused from hearing God speak.11

Then the anthropomorphic God character might remember how before the Israelites and their fellow travelers arrived at Mount Sinai, any setback caused them to despair and lose faith that God would bring them safely to Canaan. Even the miraculous pillar of cloud and fire that led them to Mount Sinai was not enough to make them trust in God. They are too anxious and insecure.

When Moses and Aaron first presented their demand to Pharaoh, Pharaoh increased the workload of the Israelites who were slaving on his building projects. Moses tried to reassure that God still planned to rescue them,

… but they did not listen to Moses, out of shortness of wind and hard service. (Exodus 6:9)

After the ten plagues, a divine pillar of cloud and fire leads the Israelites out of Egypt.

And the Israelites were departing with a high hand. Then the Egyptians chased after them and overtook them [where they were] camped by the sea—all the horses of Pharaoh’s chariots and the riders and his force … And [the Israelites] were very afraid. And the Israelites cried out to God. And they said to Moses: “Was it that there were no graves in Egypt, so you took us to die in the wilderness?” (Exodus 14:8-11)

Even after the Israelites have crossed the Reed Sea and watched the Egyptian army drown, they grumble on the journey to Mount Sinai whenever they get hungry or thirsty: at Marah,12 in the wilderness of Sin,13 and at Refidim.14 Each time God provides for them, but they do not trust God to provide the next time. At Refidim,

… they tested God, saying: “Is God in our midst or not?” (Exodus 17:7)

All this grumbling reflects an inability to believe God really will bring them to Canaan and give the land to them. The miracles God performs on demand have no long-term effect on these people.

Clearly something else is needed to cause the people to become confirmed God worshippers.

By the time Moses enters the cloud at the top of Mount Sinai, the God character has decided to give Moses instructions for making the new religion more compelling. So God calls for priests wearing impressive costumes, who will sacrifice offerings on a copper altar in front of a tent-sanctuary with walls woven out of blue, purple, and red yarn in a pattern of winged beasts. The priests themselves must remain in a state of reverence, so God assigns them additional rituals involving the gold objects inside the tent, which only they can enter.

And everything must be portable, because the Israelites need visible sacredness as soon as possible; they are too insecure to wait until they can build a permanent temple in Canaan.

These instructions take a long time to deliver. And by the time Moses descends at the end of the fortieth day, carrying the stone tablets, it is too late; the Israelites are worshiping the Golden Calf. It takes a lot of deaths before both the Israelites and the God character get back on track, and the people start making the sanctuary.

Recently I led a Friday evening service on Zoom. I sang the prayers, but everyone else was muted so I could not hear them singing with me. I spoke to the faces on my laptop about the Torah portion and the meaning of Shabbat. I chatted with a few people after the closing blessings. It was better than nothing, but I felt empty as I signed off.

I needed to be with real people in a sacred space. Like the Israelites, I needed a more three-dimensional religion.

  1. See my blog posts: Terumah: Wood Inside, Terumah: Tree of Light, Terumah:Under Cover, Terumah: Bread of Faces, Terumah: Heavy Metals, and Terumah: Cherubs Are Not for Valentine’s Day.
  2. Including Shemot Rabbah and Midrash Tanchuma circa 500 C.E., Rashi (the authoratative rabbi Shlonoh Yitzchaki) in the 11th century C.E., and Obadiah Sforno in the 16th century C.E.
  3. Rav Menashiya bar Taḥlifa said in the name of Rav: That is to say that there is no earlier and later, i.e., there is no absolute chronological order, in the Torah, as events that occurred later in time can appear earlier in the Torah.” (Talmud Bavli, Pesachim 6b, translated by
  4. Translation by
  5. Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus,  Doubleday, New York, p. 316.
  6. Ibid, p. 320.
  7. Exodus 19:8, 24:7.
  8. One example is Genesis 6:5-6, when the God character regrets making the world and decides to destroy it with a flood.
  9. Exodus 19:16-20.
  10. Exodus 20:15 translated literally, says: Then all the people were seeing the thunderclaps and the flames and the sound of the ram’s horn and the mountain smoking. When the people saw, they were shaken and they stood at a distance.
  11. Exodus 20:16.
  12. Exodus 15:22-25.
  13. Exodus 16:2-12.
  14. Exodus 17:1-6.

Mishpatim, Ki Tavo, & Joshua: Writing and Reading

After Moses tells the Israelites God’s “Ten Commandments”, he goes back up Mount Sinai and listens to God proclaiming 48 or more additional rules (depending on how you count them)—four in last week’s Torah portion, Yitro, and at least 44 in this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim (Exodus 21:1-24:18). The lengthy list includes religious observances, civil and criminal laws, and ethical guidelines.

Then Moses came and he reported to the people all the words of God and all the laws. And all the people answered with one voice, and they said: “The things that God has spoken, we will do!” (Exodus 24:3)

Apparently Moses has a phenomenal memory. And the Israelites are eager to obey all the orders he has passed on orally. But how will they remember these rules?

Moses speaks, writes, then reads

Then Moses wrote down all the words of God. And he got up early in the morning and he built an altar beneath the mountain, and twelve standing stones for the twelve tribes of Israel. (Exodus 24:4)

The Covenant Confirmed, by John Steeple Davis, 1844-1917

What are “all the words of God” that Moses writes down at that point? The Torah does not say. I think the most reasonable inference is that Moses writes down the Ten Commandments and the 48 or so rules God has just given him. But according to Rashi,1 Moses wrote down the book of Genesis and the book of Exodus up to, but not including, the account of the revelation at Mount Sinai. Apparently he brought some parchment and ink with him from Egypt.

Then he took the seifer of the covenant and he read it out loud in the ears of the people. And they said: “Everything that God has spoken we will do and we will listen!” (Exodus 24:7)

seifer (סֵפֶר) = book (in scroll form), scroll, written document.

This time the Israelites respond with even more fervor, promising not only to obey God’s rules, but to listen to them, pay attention to them. Moses prepares a burnt offering on the altar, and splashes some of the blood on the people to seal their covenant with God.

After this, Moses follows another instruction from God, taking Aaron, two of Aaron’s sons, and seventy elders halfway up Mount Sinai. They get far enough to see God’s feet on a sapphire brickwork. (See my post Mishpatim: After the Vision, Eat Something.)

Then Y-H-V-H said to Moses: “Come up to me on the mountain and be there, and I will give you the stone tablets and the torah and the commandment that I have inscribed to instruct them.” (Exodus 24:12)

torah (תּוֹרָה) = teaching, instruction; law as a whole. (The word torah later came to mean the first five books of the bible.)

Moses and Joshua Climb Mt. Sinai, by James Tissot

Even God wants to create a written record for future reference.

And Moses took Joshua, his attendant, and Moses went up the mountain of God. And to the elders he said: “Wait for us here until we return to you …” (Exodus 24:13)

Moses takes Joshua with him. But the Torah reports only Moses entering the cloud at the top of Mount Sinai and staying inside it for forty days and forty nights.2 There God gives him lengthy instructions for building a sanctuary and ordaining priests. When Moses finally hikes back down with the two stone tablets, in the portion Ki Tisa, Joshua pops into the picture again.

And the tablets were God’s doing, and the writing was written by God, engraved on the tablets. Then Joshua heard the sound of the people shouting, and he said to Moses: “A sound of war in the camp!” (Exodus 32:16-17) The Torah never says what Joshua was doing during those forty days, or exactly where he was on the mountain. God’s instructions in the cloud are addressed exclusively to Moses.

Joshua copies, then reads

Joshua remains Moses’ attendant until the end of the book of Deuteronomy, when Moses lays hands on him to make him the new leader of the Israelites, the one who will take them across the Jordan River into Canaan. Then God tells Moses:

“Here, the time draws near for [your] death. Call Joshua, and present yourselves in the Tent of Meeting, and I will give him orders.” (Deuteronomy 31:14)

There God speaks at length to Moses about the future of the Israelites, and teaches him a poem. Then God speaks to Joshua the first time:

And [God] commanded Joshua son of Nun, and said: “Be strong and resolute, because you yourself will bring the Israelites to the land that I promised to them, and I will be with you.” (Deuteronomy 31:23)

After Joshua hears this brief encouragement, Moses has more writing to do.

And Moses finished writing the words of this torah in the seifer until it was complete. (Deuteronomy 31: 24)

In the book of Joshua, God repeatedly gives Joshua instructions for the next step on his conquest of Canaan. But God does not tell him any new rules. Joshua faithfully carries out all the instructions he has received from both God and Moses.

Altar on Mt. Eyval, photo by Raymond Hawkins

When he reaches the two hills in front of Shekhem in Canaan, Eyval and Gerizim, he follows a set of orders Moses gave in the Torah portion Ki Tavo: writing on standing stones, then making offerings on an altar, then assembling the tribes on the two hills to say “Amen” after each curse or blessing the Levites call out.3 Moses started with the order to write on stones:

“Once you cross the Jordan to the land that Y-H-V-H, your God, is giving you, then you must erect large stones for yourselves and coat them with limewash. And you must write on the stones all the words of this torah …. You must erect these stones that I am commanding you about today on Mount Eyval …” (Deuteronomy 27:2-4)

All the words of which torah? The implication is that the Israelites should write down rules that Moses has passed down from God in the book of Deuteronomy—either all of them, or a subset. One logical selection would be the twelve curses that Moses then says the Levites should proclaim.

These curses are actually rules.  Each one begins “Cursed be anyone who—” and then states a deed that God forbids, such as making idols or accepting bribes. Eleven of the curses repeat rules that Moses has previously delivered. The twelfth is:

Cursed be one who does not uphold the words of this torah, to do them. And all the people shall say: Amen. (Deuteronomy 27:26)

Is “this torah” the instruction of the twelve curses, or what is written on the twelve stones?

When Joshua leads the Israelites to Mount Eyval, the priests are carrying the ark, which now contains the whole seifer Moses wrote. At first it sounds as if Joshua has the whole scroll copied onto the stones.

And [Joshua] wrote there, on the stones, a copy of the torah of Moses, that [Moses] had written in front of the Israelites. (Joshua 8:32)

But after Joshua conducts the ritual of curses and blessings, he reads out loud from Moses’ scroll.

And after that, he read aloud all the words of the torah, the blessing and the curse, out of all the writing in the seifer of the torah. There was not a word out of all that Moses commanded that Joshua did not read opposite the whole assembly of Israel, including the women and the little ones and the foreigners who went among them. (Joshua 8:34-35)

These two verses are difficult to interpret. At first it sounds as if Joshua is reading out the torah or teaching about the blessing and curse ritual they have just performed. But then it sounds as if Joshua reads the entire “seifer of the torah”, the record that Moses wrote at the foot of Mount Sinai in this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, and subsequent additions. That scroll might take all day to read out loud.

The tradition of public readings of scrolls continued. In 2 Kings 22:8, the priests find a “seifer of the torah” when they are repairing the temple in Jerusalem. King Josiah summons all the people of Judah to listen to him read it out loud. Then he swears that his people will observe all of the commandments and laws in it. They do not respond with “Everything that God has spoken we will do and we will listen!” the way the people did at Mount Sinai. Nor do they say “Amen” then way the people did at Mount Eyval. Their response is positive, but muted:

And all the people stood up for the covenant. (2 Kings 23:3)

For more than two thousand years, Jews have been reading out loud from a seifer torah hand-lettered on a parchment scroll. Everyone who comes to services watches the scroll being unrolled, and hears someone chant all or part of that week’s portion in Hebrew. In the course of a year, the seifer torah is chanted from the beginning of Genesis to the end of Deuteronomy.4 And those who do not know Hebrew can follow along by reading a translation.

For Moses and Joshua, the advantage of a written record is that it can be read out loud later. The assumption is that people will learn God’s rules better if they hear them—repeatedly.

I know that today some people absorb information better by listening, while others absorb it better by reading it. I hope someday to accompany my blog posts with podcasts in which I read my own writing aloud. But I am no Moses, so this project will have to wait until I finish rewriting my book on ethics in Genesis.

There are other texts that everyone should be familiar with. For example, the United States still uses an amended version of its original constitution. Many Americans refer to the authority of the constitution without knowing what it actually says. It is easy to find a written copy of this document, but I believe it should be taught in schools again, article by article, amendment by amendment, along with some of the various interpretations. And maybe we should even read it out loud in public once a year, just so everyone will know the source text that inflames such passions today.

  1. 11th-century rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, the most quoted classic Jewish commentator.
  2. Exodus 24:15-18.
  3. See my blog post Ki Tavo: Making It Clear.
  4. But some Jewish communities follow a tradition of reading a third of each Torah portion each week, so the five-books of the Torah are completed over the course of three years.

Yitro & Bereishit: Don’t Even Touch It

Finally, after walking through the wilderness of the Sinai Peninsula for two and a half months, the Israelites and their fellow-travelers arrive at Mount Sinai, where Moses first encountered God.1

They camp at the foot of the mountain, and Moses climbs up and down four times in this week’s Torah portion, Yitro (Exodus 18:1-20:23). On each trip, he gets instructions from God at the top, and reports them to the people below.

Mount Sinai, by Elijah Walton, 19th century

The second time Moses climbs up, God tells him:

“Here I am, coming to you in a thick canopy of cloud, so that the people will hear my words along with you, and also [so that] they will trust you forever!” (Exodus/Shemot 19:9)

No one will be able to see God, but all the people will hear God’s words—an extraordinary phenomena.

And God said to Moses: “Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow. And they must wash their clothes. And they must be ready for the third day, because on the third day, God will come down on Mount Sinai before the eyes of the people. And you must set boundaries for the people all around [the mountain], saying: Guard yourselves against going up on the mountain, or negoa its outskirts.  Anyone hanogeia the mountain must definitely die.” (Exodus19:10-12)

negoa (נְגוֹעַ) = touching. (A form of the verb naga. נָגַע = touched, reached.)

hanogeia ( הַנֺּגֵעַ) = who is touching. (Another form of naga.)

One might think that if God touched the top of Mount Sinai, any human who touched the bottom of it would automatically die, as if the whole mountain were electrified. But then God clarifies that anyone (except Moses) who dares to touch the mountain while God’s presence rests on it must be executed. And the people must perform the execution without touching the offender.

“A hand lo tiga him! Because he must definitely be stoned or shot; if a beast or if a man, he must not live. When [there is] a protracted sound of a ran’s horn, they may go up on the mountain.”  (Exodus19:13)

lo tiga (לֺא תִגַּע) = it may not touch. (Another form of naga.)

All the people have to be clean and consecrated before they can safely hear God’s voice coming from the cloud that lands on Mount Sinai. But even in this condition, they cannot see God. And touching the mountain while God is on top is taboo. Like some other taboos in the bible, this one is communicable by touch.2

Don’t go up Mount Sinai, God commands. Don’t even touch it! Don’t even touch someone who touches it!

Touching the Tree of Knowledge

The order not to touch the mountain reminds me of the conversation between the snake and Eve in the garden of Eden. Both God in Exodus, and Eve in Genesis, say that death is the penalty for touching something holy.

The snake speaks first in the first Torah portion of Genesis, Bereishit (Genesis 1:1-6:8).

He said to the woman: “Did God really say you should not eat from any tree of the garden?” And the woman said to the snake: “We may eat fruit from the trees of the garden. But as for fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, God said: ‘You must not eat from it, and lo tigeu, lest you die.’” (Genesis/Bereishit 3:1-3)

lo tigeu (לֺא תִגְּעוּ) = you must not touch it. (Another form of naga.)

Eve, by Lucan Cranach the Elder, 1528

In Genesis, God orders the primordial human not to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the middle of the garden.3 But God says nothing about touching or not touching the tree. Although God delivered the original order to the one primordial human being, before it was divided into male and female, there is no reason why the female human would not remember it. Maybe she simply added “and you must not touch it” on the spur of the moment.

Why? The classic commentary suggested that she was “making a fence around the Torah”: protecting herself from accidentally violating God’s actual prohibition by avoiding doing something that could lead to the violation.4 (One of the more famous examples of a fence around the Torah is the rule in many orthodox Jewish communities that bans turning on a stove or an electric light on Shabbat. If you feel free to make heat and light, you might forget the biblical prohibition against lighting a fire on Shabbat.5)

At first glance, a rule to avoid touching the Tree of Knowledge seems like a reasonable fence. If Eve does not get close enough to that tree to touch it, she will not be able to eat its fruit. Yet after further conversation with the snake, she transgresses both her own fence and God’s order.

Bereishit Rabbah, a fifth-century collection of commentary, adds some action and dialogue to the biblical story: “Rabbi Chiyya taught: That means that you must not make the fence more than the principal thing … When the serpent saw her exaggerating in this manner, he grabbed her and pushed her against the tree. ‘So, have you died?’ he asked her. ‘Just as you were not stricken when you touched it, so will you not die when you eat from it.’”6 According to Bereishit Rabbah, if the fence seems too important (in this case because Eve claims touching the tree carries a death penalty), then once you break the fence, it feels insignificant to break the original command as well.

Touching Mount Sinai

In Exodus, on the other hand, God tells Moses that the people may not climb Mount Sinai on the day that God will descend, and God also says the people may not touch the mountain until the signal of the sound of a ram’s horn. Both prohibitions, against climbing and against touching, come from God. God makes the fence.

What is the reason for it? 16th-century rabbi Ovadiah Sforno wrote that some people might have been so eager to catch a glimpse of God, they would trample the boundary markers and run up the mountain. The death penalty was a deterrent.

19th-century rabbi Samson R. Hirsch wrote that one reason for the two prohibitions was to make the people realize they were nowhere near Moses’ spiritual level. This seems plausible to me, since God tells Moses that after the people hear God speak from the cloud on the mountaintop, they will trust Moses forever (Exodus 19:9, above). Recognizing Moses’ high spiritual level—or closeness to God—would help to foster this trust.

Another reason, Hirsch wrote, was: “The distinction between the people about to receive the Torah, and the Source from which they are to receive it, is underscored also in terms of physical separation.”7

The realm of ordinary people at the foot of the mountain is mundane. The realm of Mount Sinai is the realm of God and God’s teachings.8 Only God’s prophet, Moses, goes back and forth between the two realms.9

There is also a practical reason for prohibiting both climbing and touching Mount Sinai on the day of revelation: the mountain becomes a dangerous place.

And it was the third day, in the morning, and there was thunder and impressive lightning on the mountain, and a very loud sound of a ram’s horn … And Mount Sinai was all in smoke from the presence of God that came down on it in fire, and its smoke rose like smoke from a furnace, and the whole mountain shuddered violently. (Exodus 19:16-18)

Vesuvius in Eruption, by J.M.W. Turner, 1817-1820, detail

Thus the prohibition against getting close enough to touch the bottom of Mt. Sinai is a reasonable fence around the prohibition against climbing the mountain—which, in turn, is a fence around the prohibition against attempting to look and see God.

Nobody breaks the fence. Moses leads the people to the foot of the mountain, but they cannot bear to get any closer. They are already seeing too much, experiencing synesthesia.

Then all the people were seeing the thunderclaps and the flames and the sound of the ram’s horn and the mountain smoking. When the people saw, they were shaken and they stood at a distance. And they said to Moses: “You speak to us, and we will listen. But may God not speak to us, or else we will die!”  (Exodus 20:15-16).

The people back  away from the supernatural volcano. No fences, with or without death sentences, are needed to keep them at a distance.

I have heard people say they wish they could experience a miracle like seeing God’s voice at Mount Sinai.  Personally, I think a miracle like that would terrify me as much as it terrified the Israelites and their fellow-travelers.  I am grateful that, by the grace of God, my own numinous experiences have been only gentle intimations.

Sometimes there is no question that we will follow a rule, because we want to follow it with all our heard and soul.  But sometimes we recognize that a rule is a good idea, yet we have no emotional investment in it. That is when we need a fence around the rule to keep us on track.

  1. At the burning bush in Exodus 3:1-4:17. The “mountain of God” is called Mount Choreiv in some passages and Mount Sinai in others, since the book of Exodus was redacted from more than one original source.
  2. For example, when someone who have been in contact with a corpse is ritually purified by being sprinkled with water containing the ashes of a pure red heifer, the person who does the sprinkling has to wash his clothes and wait until nightfall to return to a state of ritual purity. While the sprinkler waits, “Anything that he touches is impure, and the person who touches him will be impure until nightfall.” (Leviticus 19:19:22)
  3. Genesis 2:17.
  4. The phrase “Make a fence around the Torah” originated in Pirkei Avot 1:1, a compendium of rabbinic advice composed around 200 C.E.
  5. Exodus 35:3.
  6. Bereishit Rabbah 19:3, translated by
  7. Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Chumash: Sefer Shemos, translated by Daniel Haberman, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem, copyright 2005, p. 322.
  8. Torah (תּוֹרָה) = instruction, teachings; divine law; the first five books of the bible; all instructions in the Hebrew Bible.
  9. In Exodus 19:24, God tells Moses to go down and bring his brother Aaron up to the top of Mount Sinai, but this request is not followed up in the text; the Ten Commandments are delivered instead. On another day, Aaron climbs partway up Mount Sinai, along with two of his sons and 70 elders (Exodus 24:9-14), but only Moses and his attendant Joshua complete the trip to the top.

Bo & Beshalach: Winds

A plague of locusts descended on Egypt in last week’s Torah portion, Bo (Exodus 10:1-13:16). A swarm of Egyptian charioteers pursues the Israelites in this week’s Torah portion, Beshalach (Exodus 13:17-17:16). Both the locusts and the charioteers are frightening in their numbers and  destructiveness—and the God character controls both hordes with winds, to spectacular effect.

Locust winds

The eighth of the ten plagues the God character creates in Egypt is a plague of locusts that eat all the vegetation remaining after the previous plagues.

And Moses held out his staff over the land of Egypt, and God guided a ruach kadim through the land all that day and all the night. And in the morning the ruach hakadim carried in the locust swarms. And the locusts went up over the whole land of Egypt and settled down very heavily throughout the territory of Egypt. There were no locust swarms just like it before, and there will be none after. (Exodus 10:13-14)

ruach (רוּחַ) = wind; spirit, disposition, mood.

ruach kadim (רוּחַ קָדִים), ruach hakadim (רוּחַ הַקָּדִים) = wind from the east; dry east wind.

Actual desert locusts in northern Africa and southwestern Asia (Schistocera gregaria) breed in areas where there has been sufficient rainfall (to moisten the ground for egg-laying) and vegetation (for the larvae to eat). The breeding grounds in the early spring, when the locust plague in Exodus occurs (see map above) are different from the breeding grounds in summer. Adult locusts congregate into swarms when there is enough vegetation. They can fly short distances, but for long distances they take advantage of winds, catching a ride only on warm, relatively humid winds. Locust swarms from winter and spring breeding grounds around the Red Sea would need to catch a warm wind from the south to southeast to reach Egypt to the north.1

So why does the Torah say the wind that carries the locusts into Egypt is a ruach kadim, a dry east wind? One theory is that the Israelite wrote down this story was thinking in terms of winds in Canaan or Judah. When a wind brings disaster there, it is a dry wind from the eastern desert.

The God character ends the plague of locusts by changing the direction of the wind.

And God turned around a very strong ruach yam, and it lifted the locusts and blew them toward the Yam Suf. Not one locust remained in all the territory of Egypt. (Exodus 10:19)

yam (יָם) = sea, Mediterranean Sea; west.

ruach yam (רוּחַ יָם) = wind from the sea; wind from the west.

suf (סוּף) = reed, reeds, water plants.

Yam Suf (יָם סוּף) = Sea of Reeds; Red Sea.

If the God character reverses the wind from the southeast, it becomes a wind from the northwest. A strong wind coming down from the Mediterranean northwest of Egypt would indeed blow locust swarms in Egypt back toward the Red Sea or the Sea of Reeds.

The important point in the book of Exodus is that God controls the locust plague, bringing the devouring swarms into Egypt with one wind, and removing them with another.

The Hebrew Bible also uses the word for wind, ruach, to refer to someone’s mental spirit, ranging from calm wisdom  to insane jealousy or rage. And in the land of Canaan, dry desert winds were dangerous because they stripped crops, dried up ponds, and made people sick. Moist winds from the Mediterranean left dew in the morning that helped keep plants alive during the summer.

So a ruach kadim could be someone’s bad attitude or a dangerous mood—which plagues any people nearby like a swarm of locusts. A ruach yam could represent someone’s pleasant and kindly spirit, which gives others comfort and relief.

Chariot winds

Pharaoh lets the Israelites leave Egypt after God’s final plague, the death of the firstborn.2 On the second day of their exodus from Egypt, just when they thought they were free, the God character makes Pharaoh change his mind. God tells Moses:

“I will strengthen Pharaoh’s heart, and he will chase after them. Then I will be honored by Pharaoh and by all his forces, and the Egyptians will know that I am God.” (Exodus 14:5)

The God character in this part of Exodus cannot resist staging one more dramatic miracle to drive the point home that the God of Israel is more powerful than any other.3

And the Egyptians chased after them and caught up with them [when they were] encamped on the yam, all of Pharaoh’s chariot horses and riders and his army … (Exodus 14:9)

The Israelites panic when they see charioteers approaching, but God halts the action for the night.  The supernatural pillar of cloud and fire that has led the Israelites to the shore of the Sea of Reeds circles around their camp and stands between them and the Egyptians, so they cannot get any closer.4

Then Moses held out his hand over the yam, and God made the yam go with a strong  ruach kadim all night, and [God] made the yam dry up, and the waters split. Then the Israelites came through the middle of the yam on dry ground (Exodus 14:21-22)

When a strong east wind blows into Egypt or Israel, the air is so dry that ponds can evaporate and shallow lakes can shrink in an afternoon. Blowing sand increases the effect. Was the biblical Yam Suf shallow enough so a strong east wind could expose part of its bed–enough for people and livestock to walk across on the mud?

Yes, if two or more of the lakes between the Sinai peninsula and Egypt proper were connected during Egypt’s Nineteenth Dynasty, as some scholars claim. No, if it was the Gulf of Suez on the Red Sea, as other scholars believe.

If Yam Suf refers to the Red Sea, the water would be too deep for an east wind to dry out a path across it. But the narrative gives two different accounts of the depth of the yam before God parted it. First it describes an east wind drying up the sea. Then the narrator says:

Then the Israelites came through the middle of the yam on dry ground, and the waters were a wall for them on their right and on their left. (Exodus 14:22)

Many of us picture walls of water rising almost vertically from the dry sea bed, as in this illustration:

The Waters Are Divided, by James J.J. Tissot, 1896-1902

An east wind drying up part of a shallow lake does not make walls of water. But after the Egyptian army has drowned, the Israelites on the other side rejoice by singing an ancient song or poem. (We know Exodus 15:1-18 dates to a much earlier time than the narrative because the Hebrew is older.) In this poem, the wind comes not from the east, but from God’s nose. And instead of exposed mud at the bottom of a shallow sea, the deep waters congeal or freeze solid.

And by a ruach from your nostrils the waters piled up;

            The watercourses stood up like a dam.

            The deeps congealed in the heart of the yam. (Exodus 15:8)

Nevertheless, whoever wrote the narrative that precedes this poem knew about harsh, dry east winds, and therefore could easily imagine walking across dry ground in the middle of a sea.

If the “Sea of Reeds” is a shallow salt lake, the miracle would lie in the inability of the Egyptians to follow the Israelites an hour or two later.

This week’s Torah portion says that the Egyptian charioteers followed the Israelites as far as the middle of the sea—on dry ground that was probably still muddy—and then were drowned by the sudden return of the water.

Then God made the wheels of their chariots fall off, and they moved laboriously. And the Egyptians said: “Let me flee from before Israel, because God is fighting for them against Egypt!” Then God said to Moses: “Hold out your hand over the yam, and the waters will come back over the Egyptians, over their chariots and over their riders!” And Moses held out his hand over the yam, and the yam came back to its normal position. And the Egyptians were fleeing from meeting it, but God shook the Egyptians off (their chariots) in the middle of the yam. The waters returned and covered the chariots and the riders and all Pharaoh’s soldiers coming in after them into the yam; not one of them remained. (Exodus 14:25-28)

The Egyptians Are Destroyed, by James J.J. Tissot, 1896-1902

The narrative does not say how God made the waters return to their normal level so quickly. But the poem that follows it says:

You blew with your ruach; the yam covered them;

            They sank like lead in the majestic waters. (Exodus 15:10)

The ancient poem tells us the wind from God’s nostrils opens a path through the sea and closes it again. The later narrative says God summons an east wind to expose the sea bed, and then makes the waters return through some unknown means.

Either way, the Yam Suf opens or closes according to God’s whim. And the word ruach can mean mood or spirit as well as wind. In the Torah portion Beshalach, the God character rescues the Israelites and drowns the Egyptians in a spirit of pride and determination to demonstrate superior power.

In the story of the plague of locusts, the God character dooms all the innocent people who stay in Egypt to a year of famine. In the story of crossing the Sea of Reeds, God dooms the army unit that pursues the Israelites to instant death.

But the God character’s objectives are achieved. The Israelites are free to march on to Canaan, and both the Egyptians and the Israelites know God is supreme.

And Israel saw the great power that God used against Egypt, and the people feared God and had faith in God and in [God’s] servant Moses. (Exodus 14:31)

Imagine you were an anthropological god and you wanted to rescue a downtrodden ethnic group from one country, motivate it to travel to another country, and make it the ruling class there. Could you formulate a proposal that killed fewer innocent people than the divine plan in Exodus?

  1. World Meteorological Organization, “Weather and Desert Locusts”, In the book of Exodus, the last four plagues take place in the early spring.
  2. Exodus 12:29-32.
  3. See my post: Va-eira: Pride and Ethics.
  4. See my post: Beshalach: Pillar of Cloud and Fire.

Bo: Eyes and Swarms

Ten “plagues”, or devastating miracles, destroy the land of Egypt bit by bit in the book of Exodus, until the pharaoh finally acknowledges the God character’s superior power and gives the Israelites unconditional permission to leave. Last week’s Torah portion, Va-eira (Exodus 6:2-9:35), ends with the seventh plague: hail. (See my post: Va-eira: Hail That Failed.)

Desert locust: Schistocera gregaria

The eighth plague, locusts,1 opens this week’s Torah portion, Bo (Exodus 10:1-13:16). First Moses and Aaron tell Pharaoh:

“Thus says Y-H-V-H, the god of the Hebrews: How long do you refuse to humble yourself before me? Release my people so they will serve me! Because if you refuse to release my people, here I am, bringing arbeh in your territory tomorrow!” (Exodus/Shemot 10:3-4)

arbeh (אַרְבֶּה) = locust swarm(s); the desert locust Schistocera gregaria.

Then they deliver a practical threat and two frightening images. The practical threat is that the plague of locusts will devour every green thing in Egypt left after the hail, leaving the human population without food.2

Before and after the practical threat, Moses and Aaron transmit God’s frightening images.

Eyes, up and down

The first image conjures blindness, like the plague of darkness that will follow the locust plague.

“And it [the locust  swarm] will conceal the ayin of the land, and nobody will be able to see the land …” (Exodus 10:5)

ayin (עַיִן) = eye; view; spring or fountain.

After Pharaoh refuses to let the Israelites leave, the locust plague does exactly that.

And it concealed the ayin of the whole land, and it darkened the land and ate up all the green plants of the land and all the produce of the trees that the hail had left. Then nothing remained, nothing green remained on the trees or in the plants of the field, in the whole land of Egypt. (Exodus 10:15)

What does the word ayin mean in this story? The Hebrew Bible frequently uses ayin (most often in its duplex form, eynayim, עֵינַיִם = pair of eyes) to mean “view” or “sight”. Therefore many classic commentators assumed the Torah meant that the view of the land was blocked by the hordes of locusts. After all, the first reference to “the ayin of the land” is immediately followed by “nobody will be able to see the land”. If the locust swarms blanket every surface when they land, it would be as impossible to see through them as it is to see through the total darkness the Egyptians experience in the ninth plague.

On the other hand, the phrase “the ayin of the land” occurs only three times in the Hebrew Bible: twice in this week’s Torah portion (see above), and once in Numbers 22:5 (see below). According to contemporary commentator Gary Rendsburg, the rarity of this phrase means it is probably an adaptation of a common Egyptian phrase, “the eye of Ra”, which referred to either the sun (since Ra was the sun god) or the land of Egypt (which belonged to Ra). He wrote that Onkelos, who translated the Hebrew Bible into Aramaic in the second century C.E., inserted the word for “sun” in both phrases: “… ‘the eye of the sun of the land’ in 10:5 and … ‘the eye of the sun of the whole land’ in 10:15.”  Rendsburg suggested that Israelite readers would understand that the plague of locusts caused “the worst possible chain of events for the Egyptian nation, the disappearance of their omnipresent sun-god Ra”.3

Then what about the phrase “it darkened the land” in the second reference to “the ayin of the land”? When a locust swarm is in the air, it would not only block anyone underneath it from seeing the sun above, but also cast a broad shadow. According to Chizkuni,4 the shade cast by the swarm darkens the earth below.

Locust swarm, photo by James Wainscoat

However, the context of the only other biblical appearance of the phrase “the ayin of the land” refers to a swarm or horde on the ground. In the book of Numbers/Bemidbar. Balak, the king of Moab, is alarmed because Moses has led a horde of Israelites north from Egypt, and they are encamped on the border of his country. This king says to his advisors:

“Now the throng will lick bare everything around us like an ox licks bare the grass of the field!” (Numbers 22:4)

This is the behavior of locusts on the ground eating up the vegetation, not of locusts on the wing blocking the sun. King Balak then sends a message to the prophet-sorcerer Bilam, saying:

“Here are people [who] left Egypt, and hey! They conceal the ayin of the land, and they are living next to me! So now please come and put a curse on this people, because they are too strong for me …” (Numbers 22:5-6)

In other words, Balak sees the Israelites covering the ground like a giant swarm of locusts; and like locusts they are powerful because of sheer numbers.

Swarms: inside and out

Plague of Locusts, Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493

After the practical warning that the coming locust swarms will consume Egypt’s entire food supply, Moses and Aaron transmit a second frightening image to Pharaoh—one that conjures an gruesomely intimate invasion.

“And they will fill your houses, and the houses of all your courtiers, and the houses of all Egyptians …” (Exodus 10:6) 

It is not the first such invasion in the contest between the God character and Pharaoh. Before the second plague, frogs, God orders Moses to tell Pharaoh:

“And the Nile will swarm with frogs, and they will go up and come into your palace and your bedroom and climb into your bed, and go up into your courtiers’ houses and your people’s, and into your ovens and your kneading bowls.” (Exodus 7:28)

The fourth plague is arov, עָרֹב = swarms of insects (traditional translation), mixed vermin (translation based on the fact that the root ערב means “mixture”). Again God says:

“… and the arov will fill the houses of the Egyptians, and even the ground they stand on.” (Exodus 8:17)

Swarms of unpleasant animals are bad enough outside. Being unable to escape them even inside your own personal space is a horrifying invasion.

The plague of locusts both signals the coming plague of darkness, and echoes the earlier plagues of frogs and swarms of vermin. It also completes the destruction of Egypt, by eliminating the last sources of food. After Moses and Aaron warn Pharaoh about the locust plague,

Pharaoh’s courtiers said to him: “How long will this one be a snare for us? Release the men so they will serve Y-H-V-H, their god! Don’t you know yet that Egypt is lost?” (Exodus 10:7)

Locusts feeding, photo by Compton Tucker, NASA

Pharaoh is so invested in his power struggle with God and Moses that he is past the point of caring whether his country is lost. But his courtiers have a different motivation. The first seven plagues have already ensured the economic downfall of Egypt; the loss of more crops will only mean that landowners lose more wealth as they feed their people during the coming famine. They have nothing to prove about who has more power. Some of Pharaoh’s courtiers have already acknowledged God’s power by bringing in their field slaves and livestock before the seventh plague, hail.5

So why do Pharaoh’s courtiers beg him to let the Israelites go? Probably because they cannot bear the thought of one more plague, especially a plague that will blot out their sight of the sun and the ground, and will once again invade even their bedrooms.

Over the past twenty years I have had problems I could deal with, and two persistent troubles that drove me crazy because I felt constantly under attack from well-meaning people who could not understand me and would not leave me alone. I was plagued by their incessant arguments and their refusals to accommodate me. These plagues darkened my life so I despaired of seeing sunlight. They invaded my home because I had to keep returning their phone calls. All I wanted was to be free of them.

I cut myself loose from one plague by resigning from my position. At the time, it seemed as hard for me to give up on that part of my life as it was for Pharaoh to give up and let the Israelites go. I waited out the other plague until my unwitting tormenter died. In that case, I was more like Pharaoh’s courtiers, whose power was limited.

Now that I am free, I hope that if I see another plague coming, I will be able to cut my losses right away. But I also pray that I will have empathy for others who suffer from unrelenting troubles. It is painfully hard to make a major change to improve your life, especially when you can see no illumination, and you have no safe place of refuge.

  1. When a wind brings multiple swarms of desert locusts into the same large region, it is still called a “plague” of locusts. (World Meteorological Organization, “Weather and Desert Locusts”,
  2. Exodus 10:5.
  3. Gary Rendsburg, “YHWH’s War Against the Egyptian Sun-God Ra”,
  4. Chizkuni is a compilation of Torah commentary and insights written by 13th-century Rabbi Hezekiah ben Manoah.
  5. Exodus 9:13-26. See my post: Va-eira: Hail That Failed.